Late for Work 12/4: Evaluating Ravens' Playoff Chances, Including Winning AFC North

120418_LFW

Can the Ravens Win the AFC North?

Oh, what a difference a month can make.

On Nov. 4, Baltimore lost, 23-16, to the Pittsburgh Steelers, giving the Ravens a 4-5 record, while the Steelers improved to 5-2-1. It was also the Ravens' third straight loss, and made it look like an AFC North championship was well out of the team's grasp.

Things have changed a fair bit since that day. The Ravens have not lost since then, reeling off a three-game winning streak. The Steelers have gone 2-2 in that time, and have lost two in a row.

The Ravens now sit just a half game back, and the current standings have many pundits wondering if the Ravens can overtake the Steelers to win the AFC North.

Right now, ESPN is giving the Steelers a 78.9 percent chance to claim the crown, while the Ravens have a 21 percent chance.

Despite not having the percentages backing them, a number of pundits believe the Ravens can do it, including CBS Sports' Will Brinson.

"I think both teams will be favored in two games and both teams will be underdogs in two games," Brinson said during an appearance on ESPN's "The Bill Barnwell Show." "Based off what we've seen from the Pittsburgh Steelers, they're the more likely team to mess up against a bad squad. They're the more likely squad here to lay an egg in a bad spot."

Indeed, after coughing up a 23-7 lead at halftime to the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday Night Football this week, and ultimately losing 33-30, a lot of pundits aren't sure about Pittsburgh. It was a brutal loss, and combined with how the Steelers have done in previous weeks, there's plenty of pundits who now think the Ravens can surpass them.

NFL Network's Kay Adams said on "Good Morning Football" that she has more faith in the Ravens right now.

"They, at the right time of the season, have found their identity. They are running the ball, [rookie quarterback] Lamar Jackson has led them to three straight wins, and they're the first team with 200 or more rushing yards in three straight games since 2010," Adams said. "It's the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL, it's the No. 1 total defense in the NFL. … I'm looking at the Ravens and they just look more convincingly dominant to me right now."

The Ravens will have to finish with a better record over the final four games to win the division. As for how the Ravens would pull that off, Brinson believes the Ravens will win three of their final four games, while the Steelers will only win two. The Steelers still have to play the New England Patriots at home and New Orleans Saints on the road.

Brinson predicts the Ravens will win both of their home games, and also pick up a road victory this Sunday in Kansas City. It's a prediction that even the most diehard members of the Ravens Flock have to admit is gutsy: Kansas City is 10-2, and features the No. 1 scoring offense in the NFL. This could be Baltimore's greatest test of the season, but still, Brinson believes it's a good matchup for the Ravens.

"The Chiefs are not a great defense. You can score on them, and I anticipate that Lamar Jackson and [running back] Gus Edwards will be able to use some read-option stuff to put up points," Brinson said. "The Ravens defense is playing pretty well… There's a shot they can beat the Chiefs in some sort of weird shootout where [Chiefs quarterback] Patrick Mahomes turns into that gunslinger guy that makes some mistakes, and Baltimore turns him over a couple of times."

Fox Sports' Rich Eisen is thinking along the same lines as Brinson. Though he said during his show that he was unsure that Jackson would start a playoff game this year for the Ravens because of the number of teams in hunt for the wild card, Eisen also stated it was not an overreaction that the Steelers could go 2-2 over their final four games and finish as the AFC's sixth seed.

"It's entirely possible that the Ravens do go 3-1 the rest of the way despite their rough schedule," Eisen said. "Lamar Jackson is a total wild card here right now, and December will be fun to watch."

Remember, this isn't the only way the Ravens can reach the postseason. The Ravens currently hold the second wild-card spot and have a one-game lead on four other teams that have 6-6 records: Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans.

ESPN has Baltimore's overall playoff chances at 64.4 percent, which is a major increase from the odds its system gave the team last week (43 percent).

Robert Griffin's Performance Fuels the Quarterback Debate

The decision on who should play quarterback for the Ravens – either Jackson or Joe Flacco – has been a major talking point surrounding the team since Flacco suffered his hip injury in Week 9 against Pittsburgh.

He has not been healthy enough to play in games in recent weeks. Head Coach John Harbaugh revealed yesterday that Flacco's reps will be increased this week, making the odds of him playing in Kansas City greater.

There are a lot of different arguments being made about which quarterback should start on Sunday. RavensWire's Matthew Stevens made an interesting point in support of Flacco: quarterback Robert Griffin III's cameo against Atlanta showed the Ravens' rushing attack can still do well without Jackson.

"Many fans and analysts have pointed to Jackson as the driving force behind the run game's resurgence," Stevens wrote. "Baltimore going with Griffin in a more Flacco-like role for a drive disproved that."

Stevens' argument does have some stats to back it up. Griffin engineered a 14-play, 60-yard drive that ended in a field goal. Nine of those plays were runs, which went for 42 yards with a 4.7 yards per carry average, with Griffin not registering a rushing attempt.

In the run plays with Jackson under center against Atlanta, the Ravens averaged 4.13 yards per attempt. In Stevens' opinion, that means "there's no evidence Jackson makes the running game significantly better by himself."

"With some potent offenses coming up over the next few weeks, Baltimore would be in far better hands with Flacco than Jackson," Stevens wrote. "Though it's nice to point to Jackson's ability as a rusher, a healthy Flacco likely connects on some of those deep throws or at least offers a much bigger threat of throwing down the field than Jackson. Under the same run-heavy, mistake-free offensive scheme the Ravens are running, Flacco gives them the most upside."

It's definitely an intriguing point, but one drive is a pretty small sample size.

While Griffin may not be as mobile as Jackson, he's still pretty nimble. Not many quarterbacks can say they've had an 815-yard rushing season. Defenses are aware of that, and my hunch is Atlanta approached Griffin more like it would have approached Jackson rather than Flacco.

Furthermore, in games quarterbacked by Jackson, the Ravens are averaging 4.93 yards per carry, which would currently be tied for the fourth-best in the league. In games started by Flacco, the Ravens averaged 3.61 yards per attempt, which would currently be last in the NFL. That number is also aided by having productive running plays when Jackson would enter games.

Yes, the Ravens have been more dedicated to running the ball in recent weeks, and that has helped the rushing attack. But how can you look at those stats and believe that Jackson's presence has not helped the running game?

An Interesting 'What If:' Phillip Lindsay Almost Became a Raven

Denver Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay is currently on pace to set the record for most rushing yards by an undrafted rookie. Lindsay has run for 937 yards, and an average of just over 78 yards per game. If he continues that pace, he'll finish with 1,249 yards, which is 145 more than the record.  

"Denver's Phillip Lindsay might just be the best undrafted rookie running back ever," Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith wrote.

Lindsay is also a Denver native, and grew up a Broncos fan.

As cool as Lindsay's story is, it almost didn't happen in Denver. Lindsay was interviewed recently on The Peter King Podcast, and revealed that the Broncos were not his first choice when he went undrafted. The team he originally wanted to join? The Ravens.

"I'm thinking, '[Darn], this is where I'm going to be. This is where I have to try to make my living at…,'" Lindsay said. "I have never been away from home like that. … I ain't never been to Baltimore in my life. I would have to try to swindle some money up to try to live out there until I had made the team. And at that time, making the team was [like], '[Darn]. You don't have a good chance of making the team.'"

The Ravens had running back Alex Collins returning after a breakout season, and two other options behind him in Javorius Allen and Kenneth Dixon. On the other hand, the Broncos had released their leading rusher from 2017, C.J. Anderson, but drafted Oregon running back Royce Freeman in the third round.

Ultimately, at the urging of his agent and mother, Lindsay decided to go with the Broncos.

There's no guarantee that Lindsay would have done as well in Baltimore as he has in Denver. Still, it's an interesting "what if" for the Ravens to consider. To be fair though, every team in the NFL but Denver have the same scenario to consider because nobody drafted Lindsay.

Oddly enough, Lindsay had "maybe his worst game of his season" against Baltimore in Week 3, according to The Baltimore Sun's Jonas Shaffer. In that contest, Lindsay managed just 20 yards on four carries before getting ejected for throwing punches in a pile.

Also, the Ravens did pretty well in the undrafted rookie running back department this offseason with Edwards. Edwards has played a big role in Baltimore's current three-game winning streak, with his physical downhill style being a perfect complement to Jackson.

As well as Lindsay has done this season, there's no doubt the Ravens are happy with the undrafted rooking running back on their roster who is also in the midst of a breakout campaign.

Who Would Win Ravens Offensive Rookie of the Year?

Ebony Bird's Richard Bradshaw took a look at Baltimore's rookie class this season, and tried to figure out who would win the team's Offensive Rookie of the Year if the organization gave out the award. It's a difficult exercise to do though because, as Bradshaw noted, there are a lot of players to choose from.

"Thus far, a majority of these investments look to be paying off, making the team's own Offensive Rookie of the Year race a fun one to monitor," Bradshaw wrote.

Jackson and Edwards are clearly in the conversation after playing big roles in Baltimore's current three-game win streak.

You also have to consider tight end Mark Andrews, who is fifth on the team in receptions and proven to be a solid playmaker. Andrews owns the Ravens' all-time rookie franchise records for receiving yards (384 yards) by a rookie tight end, surpassing Maxx Williams (268). There's also rookie right tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who has done a superb job since stepping into a starting role.

You also can't count out Baltimore's first pick, tight end Hayden Hurst, having a strong end to the season and inserting himself into the conversation.

Bradshaw doesn't reveal who he would select. Maybe he's waiting for the season to be over. Still, it's exciting to see that so many of the Ravens' rookies have made positive impacts this season.

"You can't ask for much more from a single draft class than what Baltimore has gotten from their 2018 haul," Bradshaw wrote. "A franchise quarterback, two athletic tight ends, a solid right tackle, and a workhorse running back has given fans tons to look forward to. Until then, the race for the team's own Offensive Rookie of the Year award has to be one of the best story-lines for the Ravens entire season."

Quick Hits

  • Jackson's touchdown run against Atlanta was included in The Ringer's Danny Kelly's list of game-changing plays for Week 13. "The rookie proved once again that his ability to run changes the way teams must defend the Ravens," Kelly wrote. "Jackson leaned on his legs early and often to confound the Atlanta defense, carrying the ball 17 times for 75 yards and a touchdown—including this option-keeper run that gave the Ravens their first lead."
  • CBS Sports' John Breech gave the Ravens an A for their performance in Atlanta. "The performance marks the first time in team history that the Ravens have rushed for 200 or more yards in three straight games," Breech wrote. "Of course, as good as Jackson was, the Ravens defense was even better."

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